Baltimore’s love for Ray Lewis began long before he led the Ravens to a Super Bowl championship, earning MVP honors in the process. It began long before the University of Miami standout was even drafted by the Ravens in the first round of the 1996 NFL Draft. It began on the fateful night in March of 1984 when the Colts, packed up in Mayflower moving trucks, left Baltimore and Maryland for good.
As then Mayor Donald Schaeffer put it, “it degrades a great tradition of a city of football.” This city spent the next 12 years trying to pick up the pieces and put back together that great tradition. The NFL tried to keep a team out Baltimore. We were told that we weren’t good enough, time and time again. This city has always had a collective chip on its shoulder. We were used to being told we weren’t good enough. So was Ray.
Ray was always told he was too small to play middle linebacker at higher levels (he was also a standout running back in high school). He only gained his starting role at Miami due to an injury to one of the starters. Even after a stellar collegiate career Lewis fell to 26th overall. Eleven defensive players, including three linebackers were drafted ahead of him that year. He had something to prove and there was no better place to embark upon that journey than here. Of those three linebackers drafted before Ray, only one went to a single Pro Bowl. Ray has been to 12 (13 if you count the one in which he bowed out to give Bart Scott an opportunity to go). I think he got the last laugh.
In 1996, our dreams were realized again when Art Modell moved the Browns to Baltimore. Baltimore drafted Lewis in the first round and the city embraced him. In the fledgling years of the franchise, Ray became the reason to watch the Ravens play. While the team struggled, the one constant was that Ray, or “Ray Ray” as he became affectionately known, would put on a show amassing tackles and dealing out big hits.
On January 31st, 2000 a fight broke out after a Super Bowl party in which two men were stabbed to death. Lewis and his two friends were later indicted on murder and aggravated assault charges stemming from the incident. Ray admits this was one of the darkest times of his life. He negotiated a plea agreement and was only convicted of a charge of obstruction of justice.
We can debate about his innocence to no end, but one thing is for certain. Baltimore embraced Ray when many people lashed out at him. Ray isn’t perfect. We knew this. But neither is Baltimore. Ray fit perfectly into the identity of the city. He became the face of not only the Baltimore Ravens, but the entire city.
The following season, the Ravens trotted out one of the greatest defenses of all time led by the future Hall of Famer. I can remember Ray’s snatching the ball from Eddie George in the second round of the playoffs and returning it for a touchdown, sparking the Ravens run to the Super Bowl. They routed the Giants and Lewis obtained Super Bowl MVP honors in the process along with his first Defensive Player of the Year award.
Lewis was now a household name. Kids grew up idolizing the middle linebacker. They fought for the right to wear his number on their pee wee teams. Players now came into the league in awe of playing on the same field as him. In Baltimore, you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing a #52 jersey. The grocery store, the bar, school; he was everywhere. He became the King of Baltimore. He represented us. He personified us. His intensity, his drive, his passion. We all bought in and identified with him.
Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” became the tradition every time Ray was introduced. That dance was imitated by every kid in the city and the state. I can remember mimicking the man myself. “Rip the grass…slide…slide…kick, AAAAAAAHHHH.” Everyone knew it.
And those pre game speeches, “ANY DOGS IN THE HOUSE? WHO, WHO, WHO, WHO!” He was a general leading his troops. He was a lion leading his pride.
We hear the term “end of an era” time and time again. But Ray Lewis retiring is truly an end of era. The Ravens have never played a game in which Ray Lewis was not on the roster. Sure there were periods where he was injured, but most of those times he was on the sideline still being the emotional leader he had come to be over his time here.
Baltimore will forever be indebted to Ray Lewis because he brought pride back to a “city of football.” His legacy will live on in Baltimore long after he is elected to the Hall of Fame, long after he is inducted into the Ring of Honor, and long after a statue is erected next to Johnny U.
Many are wondering what it will be like to see a Baltimore without Ray Lewis. The thing is though; there won’t ever be a Baltimore without Ray Lewis. The influence of Ray Lewis will always be seen in through the football team in the numerous players whom he has tutored and through the people of Baltimore. Our attitude is his attitude. No matter where he is, whether he is on the sidelines at Miami cheering on his son or in some studio going over the week’s games, Baltimore will always be connected to Ray.
I grew up in the Ray Lewis era. I got to watch his legend unfold and I will get to watch it all come to end (possibly) on Sunday. Everything about the way I watch football is because of Ray Lewis, like so many other Baltimoreans. “We will all enjoy that moment. We will all savor in that moment,” Lewis said of coming out of the tunnel for the last time here in Baltimore. No doubt tears will be shed. I won’t be ashamed.
“I may be gone now, but I’m not gone forever,” Ray said in yesterday’s press conference. He’s right. Baltimore will forever be linked to him. We are forever grateful for bringing tradition and pride back to Baltimore. Thanks, Ray.
“ANY DOGS IN THE HOUSE? WHO, WHO, WHO, WHO!”